Time to dispel migrant myths

By Edie Friedman, May 20, 2013
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In the heated debate about immigration, which seems to intensify daily and has by no means been settled by the recommendations in the Queen's Speech last week, the Jewish community can look back with pride at the number of Jewish migrants who came to Britain and made an enormous contribution to this country.

But can this pride lead us to a romanticised view of our migrant past - one that colours our perceptions of immigration today? There are real debates about how much we allow what has gone before to define our identity, in terms of our place in the Jewish world and also within the wider society.

I am not alone in worrying that this identity can be too defined by victimhood. Our views on modern immigrants might well be influenced by certain pervasive myths, for example that all Jewish migrants from Eastern Europe at the turn of the last century were refugees. As shown by historian Tony Kushner, many were economic migrants - the very group subject to so much opprobrium today.

The belief that all came seeking refuge, rather than acceptance of the more complex truth, may make us less tolerant of more recent migrants, who, like our Jewish ancestors, come to these shores for various reasons. Some come in desperation, seeking a place of safety. Others come to find a better life for themselves and their families, as migrants have done for centuries.

We too were the targets of a hostile press

But we must beware of simplistic analysis: that we were the good and deserving migrants and those arriving today are not. And we would do well to remember that, like today's migrants, we were the targets of a hostile press. Even the most cursory look at the headlines that greeted the arrival of Jewish refugees in the 1880s and before the Second World War demonstrates this:

"These immigrants have flooded the labour market with cheap labour to such an extent to reduce thousands of native workers to the verge of destitution," complained the Manchester City News in May 1888.

Or the Sunday Express, in June 1938: "But just now there is a big influx of foreign Jews into Britain. They are overrunning the country. They are trying to enter the medical profession in great numbers. Worst of all, many of them are holding themselves out to the public as psychoanalysts".

The headlines that portrayed us as people who were swamping the country, taking jobs away from the indigenous population and not wanting to integrate are paralleled today with monotonous regularity.

This constant drip of sensationalism leads to a widespread perception that Britain is now swamped by migrants. But the cross-party Migration Matters Trust, using Office for National Statistics data, tells a different story. It finds that migrants make up about one in 10 of the population, lower than Australia, the US or Germany and that almost 90 per cent of new jobs go to British nationals.

Our community must be on guard against falling prey to anti-asylum rhetoric and the current trend for blaming migrants for many of the country's ills. Jewish teaching prevails upon us to assist the stranger in our midst. Thus in spite of the prevailing zeitgeist, the impulse for a more positive approach to migration resonates strongly within the community.

Organisations such as JCore and Rene Cassin educate about migrant issues and outstanding practical help is given to asylum seekers at drop-in centres, including those at the New North London, North Western Reform and West London synagogues.

The motivation for such work is not a rose-tinted view of Jewish refugee history, but rather a more nuanced view of the complexity of our past experience and the knowledge that evidence, not myth, should determine public policy. And it springs from an understanding that scapegoating today's migrants is a threat to the community cohesion upon which we depend for our wellbeing.

Surely it is incumbent on us, a group that too often fell victim to anti-migrant rhetoric, to ensure that mythmaking and scapegoating have no place in our public discourse.

Dr Edie Friedman is founder and executive director of the Jewish Council for Racial Equality

    Last updated: 9:45am, May 20 2013